The woman was walking her dog in Hollywood one day in 2009 when the Volkswagen Jetta pulled up alongside her. Two men inside the car allegedly ordered her to climb in.
She complied. She had to.
The men were police officers.
Despite the undercover car, the woman recognized them as veteran Los Angeles Police narcotics officers. They had arrested her before.
Officer Luis Valenzuela allegedly climbed into the back seat with the woman. Then he allegedly handed her dog to his partner, Officer James C. Nichols, who drove the Jetta to a secluded area.
“Why don’t you cut out that tough girl crap,” Valenzuela said as he “unzipped his pants and forced [her] head down toward his lap,” according to a warrant obtained by the Los Angeles Times.
The policeman then “physically held her head down” as he forced the woman to perform oral sex on him — all while his partner acted as a lookout, according to the warrant.
The woman didn’t immediately report the incident because she was scared, humiliated and felt nobody would believe her.
But on Wednesday, prosecutors charged Valenzuela and Nichols with raping the dog-walker and three other women over the span of several years. According to a felony complaint, the officers repeatedly threatened the women — all of whom had previous drug arrests — with a return to jail unless they agreed to oral or vaginal sex.
In at least one case, Valenzuela allegedly pointed a gun at one of the women to get her to go along with his demands.
“You don’t want to go to jail today, do you?” Nichols allegedly told another woman, removing her handcuffs and exposing himself.
Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck expressed his disgust with the two officers Wednesday.
“These two officers have disgraced themselves, they’ve disgraced this badge, they’ve disgraced their oath of office,” he said during a news conference. “I am extremely troubled by what they’ve done.”
Worst of all was that the two officers “preyed on folks that are sometimes reluctant witnesses, reluctant victims,” Beck said.
“It’s a violation of public trust,” he added. “That’s what makes it so horrific.”
The two officers now face a combined 32 charges. If convicted, they could each face life in prison.
An attorney representing two of the women, who have not been named, hailed the charges as a “wonderful development.”
“It’s a ray of light that these women will finally see some justice,” Dennis Chang told the Los Angeles Times.
But Chang also said the charges were “years overdue.” According to the complaint, the offenses date back to at least 2008. They were reported by multiple women, but the rapes allegedly continued unchecked as an internal investigation floundered for years. It wasn’t until one of the women filed a lawsuit against the officers in 2013 that their fellow LAPD officers moved in, seizing phones and computers belonging to Valenzuela and Nichols. The accused officers have spent the past two years on unpaid leave.
Robert Rico, an attorney representing Nichols in administrative charges of sexual misconduct filed by the LAPD, told CNN that if the criminal charges reflect those in the administrative case, “my client absolutely denies it.”
Bill Seki, a lawyer representing Valenzuela in his own administrative battle, said his client also denied the administrative charges. As for the criminal investigation, Seki said it had dragged on for years and was plagued by “issues of credibility” surrounding the victims, CNN reported.
The allegation that the two officers preyed on vulnerable, easily discreditable women is reminiscent of another high-profile police abuse case.
Last month, former Oklahoma City officer Daniel Holtzclaw was sentenced to 263 years in prison for similar crimes. Holtzclaw, was accused of pulling over and sexually assaulting African American women in low-income neighborhoods in the hope that they would be less likely to report his actions. He was undone, however, when a grandmother of 12 reported him.
In Los Angeles, it is unclear whether race played a factor in how Nichols and Valenzuela chose their victims. The ethnicity of the officers and their alleged victims has not been released.
What is clear, though, is that the two LAPD officers stand accused of sexually preying on women with drug or prostitution habits. Sometimes the officers took turns assaulting the women as the other stood guard, while at other times they acted alone, according to the complaint.
The first alleged rape occurred in 2008, when a woman working as a confidential informant for the police department’s narcotics unit was stopped by Valenzuela and Nichols, who she knew. The cops were dressed in plainclothes and driving a Jetta. Valenzuela threatened to take the woman to jail if she refused to get into the car, according to the warrant obtained by the Times. When she got in, he allegedly exposed himself and made her perform a sex act on him.
When the woman complained to a narcotics unit supervisor in January of 2010, the investigation stalled when a detective was unable to find the woman, according to the Times.
When the woman walking her dog was allegedly assaulted in a similar manner in 2009, she also hesitated to expose the officers. When she finally did come forward, “police noted that the woman displayed erratic behavior while recounting the events,” the Times reported. “Later, she made violent threats while in custody and was transported to the hospital.”
Despite the woman’s erratic behavior, LAPD reopened its investigation into the two officers. This time, an investigator tracked down the dog-walker as well as the woman who said she had been raped in 2008. Both gave statements.
But the investigation into the allegedly crooked cops once again stalled, this time for 18 months. According to the Times, the reason for the delay isn’t clear from the warrant.
During the delay, Valenzuela and Nichols allegedly continued their crimes.
According to the complaint, the two cops were involved in a series of other sexual assaults against two more women from 2009 until 2011. One of the women, identified in the complaint as “Jane Doe #3,” was allegedly assaulted twice in the span of three weeks. Another woman, “Jane Doe #4,” was allegedly raped six times over the span of a year and a half.
One of the women said she had worked as a confidential informant for Valenzuela and Nichols after she was arrested. Valenzuela initially told her that having sex with him would help her avoid jail, according to the warrant. Later, Nichols allegedly told her she could stop informing if she had sex with him. The woman told investigators she had sex with Valenzuela twice for fear or returning to jail if she refused: once when he was off duty at her apartment and a second time in the back seat of his undercover car while he was on duty.
During this time, both officers were reassigned to other divisions, according to the Times.
The internal affairs case against the cops only sprang back to life in July of 2012, when a man left LAPD a phone message saying that he was a member of a neighborhood watch and that a prostitute had told him that cops were picking up working girls and letting them go in exchange for sex, according to the warrant.
When officers belatedly looked into the man’s complaint, they “thought the circumstances and location were very similar” to the previous allegations against Valenzuela and Nichols, according to the warrant.
Even then, the department didn’t act until one of the women filed a lawsuit against the two officers in January of 2013. Fearing that Valenzuela and Nichols would destroy evidence, internal affairs investigators seized their phones and computers and the accused cops were put on unpaid leave, the Times reported.
The woman settled her suit with the city in January of 2014 for $575,000, the Times reported.
“Their power over her was abundantly clear from the get go,” Chang said at the time.
It took more than two additional years for prosecutors to charge the pair of cops. When they finally did Wednesday, Valenzuela and Nichols suffered the ignominy of being arrested by their own colleagues.
The pair are being held on more than $3.5 million bail and are scheduled to appear in court on Thursday, according to prosecutors.
An Associated Press investigation published in November found that at least 1,000 U.S. law enforcement officers had lost their badges due to sexual misconduct — including rape, possession of child pornography, propositioning citizens and having consensual but prohibited on-duty intercourse — between 2009 and 2014.
Although the arrest of Valenzuela and Nichols brought relief to some of their alleged victims, it’s unlikely to satisfy all of them.
Despite the officers’ promises to help her in exchange for sex, one of the four women was sentenced to seven years in April of 2011 for possession of cocaine with the intent to sell, the Times reported.
If she does remain behind bars, then she could soon be joined there by the very men who allegedly abused her.
This post has been updated.